A surging demand for veterans’ health care is leading the VA to open a massive outpatient facility in Charlotte. The six-story complex opens Friday and offers primary care, mental health, pharmacy and some specialty care. It’s part of the VA’s push to modernize its services and decrease wait times.
Marion Woods says the VA has been keeping him alive.
The 68-year-old veteran lost his arms and legs in Vietnam. The VA has helped him with prosthetics, wheelchairs, therapy and more. But like many other veterans, the south Charlotte resident has also dealt with long waits.
"You call, sometimes you never get a call back," he says. "They know that. They know the complaints. They're trying to change those complaints."
The Charlotte area is one of the fastest growing parts of the country for veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. And yet it’s only had a small clinic to handle primary care and other outpatient services.
Dr. Jeffrey Kuch is the clinic’s medical director.
"Right now, a new patient at Charlotte waits on the average about 10 to 11 days for an appointment," he says. "An existing patient waits about 8 days."
That’s if it’s not an emergency. Kuch says the massive new facility will change those waits.
"Our goal at the new clinic is that no new patient nor any existing patient wait at all," he says.
Here’s how they’re aiming to pull that off.
Part of it is about the sheer size of the new facility. It’s not a hospital, but you wouldn’t know that walking up to it. It’s a six-story complex located near the airport.
Ken Mortimer is director of the Charlotte Health Care Center. He says it’ll have almost double the number of primary care teams.
"We have actually primary care on three floors of the building for a total of 33 primary care teams, which allows us to serve right around 35,000 veterans in primary care," Mortimer says.
That’s an increase of roughly 40 percent.
The VA is also trying a different strategy. Dr. Kuch says all the doctors will use a new scheduling technique.
"A doctor, rather than being completely booked up at the beginning of the day, will only have a few patients scheduled," Kuch says. "But if there's good communication with their patients, they can bring in patients all day long with acute and chronic illness."
Kuch says more veterans already use online messaging to set up appointments, and he hopes that will grow. There will also be a few providers who keep their schedules completely open for last-minute appointments.
After getting a tour, Marion Woods, the Vietnam vet, said he likes the changes.
"They're overbooked," he said with a chuckle. "They're just too many people needing care. And this building is going to help relieve, I mean the doctors are just, bam, bam, bam all day long. It's going to work out good."
Woods is also excited it’ll cut down the number of the trips he has to make to Salisbury or other VA facilities. The Charlotte complex offers CT scans and ultrasounds, colonoscopies and other minor surgeries, and eye and ear specialists.
Later this year, it’ll add dental, physical therapy, dialysis and other specialties, says Kaye Green, medical director for the entire Salisbury system.
"Our longer term goal is to allow you to get that specialty care here in Charlotte as opposed to driving to Salisbury for most of that care," she says, notifying that's specifically for outpatient care. Anything that requires a hospital admission will still mean a trip to Salisbury.
J.W. Walton and some other veterans wish the new facility included an emergency room.
"But other than that, I think all of the other services will be provided," Walton says. "It's a very, very nice, first-class facility. I will just be interested in how it's going to be operated. Is it going to be operated with efficiency and effectiveness, and that is yet to be seen"
"It's what they're saying; I'm looking forward to finding out," says Stan Greene with a chuckle. (No relation to the Salisbury medical director.)
Greene and his brother Mike live in Gaston County, and they’ve both had to wait more than a month for some appointments. Mike says they’ve also had to drive an hour to Salisbury more than they’d like.
"I'm looking forward to the new clinic and having care immediately rather than waiting so long," he says.